Law Day 2015 | Statement of John G. Levi, Chair, Board of Directors, Legal Services Corporation
Every year on May 1, Americans observe Law Day, celebrating the country’s commitment to the rule of law, and this year’s theme focusing on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta is particularly appropriate since many regard the Great Charter to be the foundation for the rule of law in the English-speaking world.
At the Legal Services Corporation we are also marking another milestone, the 40th anniversary of our founding, and LSC’s mission to help provide equal access to justice is essential to the rule of law.
This vital mission, however, has been threatened for many years now by significantly expanding need and chronically inadequate resources. In 1976, LSC’s first year of full congressional funding when the percent of the population eligible for LSC-funded legal assistance stood at 12%, the fledgling LSC was allocated by Congress, in inflation-adjusted terms, more than $468 million, rising three years later to its all-time high of what today would be more than $880 million. But today, despite our best efforts, the FY-2015 allocation of $375 million is less than half of that. Even 10 years ago, LSC’s actual funding was $400 million.
Since then, as LSC funding has declined and remained low, the population eligible for LSC-funded assistance has grown to all-time highs. In 2013, the most recent year for which U.S. Census Bureau data are available, 63.6 million people — one in five Americans — had annual incomes below the threshold for LSC-funded legal assistance of 125 percent of the federal poverty line. Another 32.4 million people had incomes below that level for at least two consecutive months during the year and thus were eligible for our assistance. In other words, nearly one in three Americans — 96 million people — qualified for LSC-funded services at some time during 2013.
Given these staggering figures, it is not surprising that our grantees and other providers cannot keep up with demand and are being forced to turn away scores of low-income Americans seeking civil legal assistance.
LSC has been attempting to address this problem by raising public awareness and through innovative technology and pro bono programs to help stretch every dollar as far as it can possibly go. But as Justice Elena Kagan observed at LSC’s 40th anniversary conference in September, what civil legal aid really needs is “more money.” We are just a rounding error in the federal budget even though the values we are entrusted to uphold are anything but a fiscal afterthought.
So as we celebrate the Magna Carta and its idea that no person should be above the law, we should also remember the mission of LSC and the equally significant corollary that it embodies. As Colorado’s U.S. Attorney John Walsh also observed at LSC’s September conference:
“The Magna Carta established that no man, even a king – or in our constitutional system, a President – is or should be above the law. In a sense, the enterprise that all of you are engaged in is achieving the equal but converse principle – that just as no person should be above the law, no person should be below it.”
The protection of this basic American ideal, recognized by our founding fathers, is now in our hands. We know there is too little funding and too many people are left out.
On this Law Day, let us rededicate ourselves to making sure that the generations that succeed us share in our founders’ vision of equal justice for all.
Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. The Corporation currently provides funding to 134 independent non-profit legal aid programs in every state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.